If the mark of a good director is actors willing to follow you over the side of a cliff, then Dave Barton is one hell of a director. That's not as backhanded a compliment as one might think. As difficult as his adaptation of the 17th-century revenge tragedy The Changeling is to follow, Barton's cast attacks the script's archaic poetry and his eye-raising directorial choices with frenetic zeal.
That makes this long, lumbering play entertaining to watch, even as the temptation to zone out is ever-present.
At first glance, it seems odd that Barton, the Weekly's main art critic, would have any interest in such an old play suffused with the kind of lofty, ornate language that produces hard-ons for lovers of Shakespeare, but whisky dick for the rest of us. The florid poetry and the setting are a far cry from most of the contemporary, politically infused, cutting-edge work he helmed during his tenures at Rude Guerrilla in Santa Ana and the Monkey Wrench Theatre Collective in Fullerton.
The Changeling at Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theater, 5021 E. Anaheim Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 494-1014; www.lbplayhouse.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Sept. 29. $14-$24.
But this is Dave Barton, and even though he adapted and is directing this show at the Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theater, The Changeling's plot, filled with sex, murder and revenge, falls well within his theatrically visceral wheelhouse.
Written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, the play offers dual plotlines. The first takes place in a Spanish castle and follows the complicated vagina of Beatrice, the daughter of a wealthy nobleman. She's in love with Alsemero (a strong Conor Turoci), who is rarely seen without a crucifix dangling from his neck. But her father has pressed her into marrying someone else, and the prospective groom is on his way for the nuptials. Meanwhile, the creepy DeFlores, who appears to wash his face in the same acid bath as the Joker, madly pines for Beatrice, who continually berates and insults the facially disfigured wretch. The shifting relationship between DeFlores and Beatrice over whom she will wed and bed is the catalyst for this part of the plot.
The second plotline is set in an asylum. A bunch of people runs in and out, a bunch of words are said, and a bunch of stuff happens, but none of it seems remotely linked to the other storyline. Not until the final scene do the plots intersect, and I'm pretty sure the term "ham-fisted contrivance" was first uttered by a theater critic in Jacobean England on seeing that ungainly merger.
The stilted language and the two unconnected worlds make things difficult to follow. That's compounded by a second major disconnect: Barton's choice to keep the 390-year-old language and setting intact, while the costumes, many props and the music are contemporary. That further confuses an already-muddy play. The most glaring example is when inmates in the asylum rehearse (for whatever reason) a dance routine to the music of Michael Jackson's Thriller. Whether Barton chose the song, as well as the zombie dance moves, as a joke or some kind of metatheatrical self-reference (hey, we're doing a really old play, but it's really 2012!), it just adds to the murk.
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While Barton's adaptation is, sadly, a mess (he seems more interested in drawn-out sex scenes and gushing blood packs than clearly relaying the story), his cast delivers an astonishing array of work. Terri Mowrey's Beatrice is both villain and victim, and her arc is fascinating to watch, as is that of Rick Kopps as her deformed co-conspirator, DeFlores. In fact, these two work so well together, their story so riveting, that it renders everything else in the play irrelevant. Not that the other actors don't wring something interesting from nearly every scene in the play, from Jessica Lamprinos' turn as Beatrice's lusty servant to the physical comedy of Jeffrey Kieviet, Jeremy Charles Hohn and Aly Fainbarg in the asylum. And, again, for actors to hurl themselves at such material in a disjointed adaptation with so much passion and esprit de corps is something any director should take pride in.
Kudos to Barton for that, as well as not approaching this play in a traditional, reverential fashion that would drain its vitality. He made choices—big, risky choices. Unfortunately, many of them come at the expense of the story. If you consider a play a piece of military strategy, in that actors are the foot-soldiers and the director is the general, it's clear General Barton inspired his troops. What isn't always clear is what they are fighting for.
This review appeared in print as "A Jacobean Fustercluck: Weekly art critic Dave Barton directs an uneven The Changeling."